After two years of teaching English overseas, I wanted to go home for Christmas. I didn't have enough money for a flight from Istanbul to Los Angeles, so I decided to celebrate in Turkey, a place where Christ's birth is rarely told but not unknown.
In search of Christmas in Turkey, I went first to the local shopping mall in Izmit, Kocaeli. I have been staying in Izmit with my Turkish husband and his parents as I look for a new teaching job. To my delight, the mall was decorated with festive lights and bows. Christmas trees hung from the ceiling, creatively held in large white bowls like lilies. As a I drank hot cocoa at Starbucks, I gazed upward at the sight of red and gold.
The Dolphin Shopping Mall in Izmit, Kocaeli displays creative hanging Christmas trees.
The next step of my journey took me to Istanbul, an hour's bus ride from Izmit. After sailing across the Bosporus on a ferry, I walked up the hill to Taksim which is famous for its stately old buildings, foreign consulates, and busy shopping streets. Blue and white lights hung across the main walkway where people gathered to buy gifts. Baba Noel (Father Christmas) could be seen in various window displays. The historic cathedral of Saint Anthony featured a Christmas tree and lights in its courtyard. Candles glowed inside its stately sanctuary.
Inside the sanctuary of Saint Anthony's Church, candles glowed.
After my day in Istanbul, I went back to Izmit and attended the Christmas service at the local Protestant Church. The small upper sanctuary was packed with Turks and Americans. Although the hymns were sung in Turkish, the message of Christ's humble birth in a manger was the same. The congregation shared cookies and tea after the service, joyful despite a conflicted world. I decided that Christmas in Turkey was an adventure. Maybe I'll go home to California next year.
The Turkish pastor of Izmit Protestant Church shared the Christmas story.
But on Christmas Eve, I felt lonely for my son Jonathan, just 17, who will be spending the holidays with his father, stepmother, and five step-siblings. They will decorate the three-storey mountain chateau where I used to live, sing carols by the fireplace, and heap gifts beneath a live fir tree. My daughter Jessica, 20, has a room in a house nearby, yet she will join the festivities. My older son and daughter have their own families and will not think of me. I feel forgotten, so far away (though two years ago I was further, in frozen Russia). I sit in a small Turkish apartment that isn't mine, on the floor next to an electric heater, and watch BBC Entertainment on Turkish cable television.
They air "The Nativity," the British version, and I am skeptical, expecting them to show Mary as a prostitute or something. But the Mary in this version is kind, loving God's presence like warmth and pure joy within her. Joseph is skeptical and won't take her hand until Mary cries out in agony just before the birth. Amazing visitors assemble in the hay-strewn stable. Three planets align to form one bright star. The angel Gabriel, who had appeared to Mary and Joseph, brings good news to poor shepherds in a nearby field. They arrive with crook and lamb and ask, "Did God really send his son for people like us?"
"Yes, he did," Mary replies.
Magi, wise men from the east, bow before the newborn babe. One gives gold to the king who formed a bridge from heaven to earth. Another offers frankincense to God who became a man. The third bestows myrrh, a priceless spice to wrap the one who was born to die.
Never has the story seemed so meaningful to me. I thank the BBC and Turkish cable television. I think of others who do not have a house or presents or family. Somewhere, parents mourn the loss of a child, homeless people search for food, and refugees shiver in winter tents. Let us not forget them.
Merry Christmas from Turkey. Mutlu Noel.
Lonna Lisa Williams